Generally speaking, two types of people will read this review: Regular readers of this site
looking for the latest DVD releases and Derrida fans who find this review on Google or something
like that. So I have to say, right off the bat, that the philosophical musings of Jacques Derrida
do not hold much fascination for me. His texts are dense with self-referential allusions and
pretentious postures. His forming a description of "deconstruction" has spawned countless grad
school theses and art critic essays but are of little interest to most folks.
That said, the work of philosophers can be essential taken in their original form. That is, if you want to know about Derrida's mind, you read his work. The
documentary Derrida, however, is a wan watering down of the man's themes and thoughts.
The problem is that Derrida is exactly the kind of person who can never be captured on film.
Co-director Kirby Dick's earlier film Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan,
Supermasochist succeeded because its subject was so visual. Exploring his inner-workings
through the exterior was a journey the filmmaker and audience could share.
Derrida, however, cannot work like that. What journey will the filmmaker take into Derrida's
mind that the man hasn't already taken, documented, discussed, lectured on, and, ultimately,
grown tired of? We're talking about a guy who sits around and thinks for a living. How
can you show that?
It takes a filmmaker of the caliber of Errol Morris (who succeeded with similar goals in A
Brief History of Time and The Fog of War) and the Derrida team (Dick and
co-director Amy Ziering Kofman) are not up to the challenge. Despite their respect and
admiration of Derrida, they barely seem to know their subject at all: At one point Kofman prods
"say whatever you want about love." What did she expect? Derrida, of course, squirms a little
and then says that he needs a question to continue. She doesn't seem to get it but this isn't
the way he operates. I barely know anything about the man but the moment I heard the "question"
I cringed. It's a bit embarrassing.
It's possible that the filmmakers were flummoxed at that point anyway. At one point Derrida
gleefully states "I'm not going to tell you everything. No. I'm only going to tell you
superficial things." At that point the cameras should have been packed up and the crew sent
home. Instead the film is filled with pseudo-deconstructionist details like Derrida talking on camera
about how the stumbling camerawoman can see him but can't see where she's walking, causing her
to stumble. We also get to watch Derrida in a mirror discussing how the Other (a high-fallutin
term for someone other than yourself) sees him. Oooh! The mirror! We're the Other and we're only
watching a representation of Derrida in a mirror (actually we're only watching a representation
of a representation thanks to the TV...) When Derrida stops an interview to comment on the fact
that the interview itself is just an artificial environment blah blah blah for the third time
you almost want to scream at him. Even the most mainstream viewer at this point is aware that
interviews are as much artifice as the most CG Hollywood action scene. He doesn't need to belabor
this boring point.
The joke is that for all the stylized post-post-deconstruction flourishes the filmmaker throws
in (a biographical voiceover is played in scrambled non-chronological order; We watch Derrida watch an interview of
himself talking about the interview itself) Derrida himself must consider the film fake
philosophy. At one point a TV interviewer foolishly tries to suggest to him that Seinfeld
is a modern example of pop-deconstruction. First, he claims to not know what Seinfeld is
(which is believable) and then condescendingly laughs off the notion that something as pedestrian
as a sitcom could exhibit any of his grand ideas in action. I hope he doesn't think that this
film is more sophisticated than Seinfeld or any of the fine films in recent years that
have attempted to use a sense of self-awareness to delve deeper into their own subject matter
(Fight Club, Three Kings, Rushmore).
Similarly he keeps some Anne
Rice novels on his bookshelf that someone gave him as a gift, but he makes a very specific point
of saying several times that he hasn't read them. Why not, Jacques? They may not be Heidegger but could it
hurt to see what's inside them? For someone who professes to critique modern culture he seems to
want as little to do with it as possible.
If Derrida were willing to at least answer the questions the filmmakers pose then the film would
at least serve as a lecture in a box. Instead he plays a game of evasion via pop-psychology.
Offered almost any question, he begins to answer but then cuts himself off. He then launches
into an endless qualifier about how it's not a real question and how the subject matter is an
illusion and must be understood through the perspective of some other philosopher with whom
Derrida doesn't fully agree but respects, etc... After a few minutes of these sorts of tangents
the filmmakers, either satisfied or bored, cut to the next scene. Very few questions are
actually ever answered. Not that the answers would matter anyway, but it's just annoying.
It's possible that the film couldn't have gone any more in depth than it does thanks to the
subject. If that's the case, then did it really need to be made? It doesn't give any real
insight into Derrida for the philosophy novice and it won't be as meaningful to the student as
the original texts. This movie probably functions best as a keepsake for the Derrida fan, like
some of the young women in the film who flock to the philosopher after a lecture. (I wonder where autographing DVD covers fits into Derrida's theories?) It's weird to
see such star-crossed groupie-like behavior in this context, but Derrida, I guess, is the rock
star of the post-grad set. If the filmmakers hope to reach out to a wider audience, however, I
don't think they succeeded.
The full-screen video is acceptable. It's shot on video and doesn't exhibit any terrible flaws.
It's not terribly interesting, however, and has the look of a home video.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is fine. Some of the interview footage is recorded in less than
optimal conditions, so voices are sometimes muffled. Mostly it's clear, however. Derrida
switches between French and English frequently and the film features English subtitles for all
the French speech. There are also optional English subtitles for the rest. Modern composer
Ryuichi Sakamoto's score is fine, although not as interesting and textured as some of his other
The extras section contains about an hour of additional interviews. They're same basic style as
the interviews in the film, so if you liked those you'll love these. At one point Derrida
expounds on how this film will outlive him. Unlikely. Beside, why would a man who has published
as many essays as Derrida consider some surface-dwelling documentary as the thing that will carry his
ideas to future generations? Doesn't make sense.
There's also a commentary track from the filmmakers that's not really that interesting. They
discuss how nice Derrida is in person, making coffee to for the crew.
There is a Q&A session featuring the filmmakers and Derrida at a screening of the film. It's
funny to watch the man twist around trying to compliment the film without complimenting himself
or sounding like it really tickles his ego. He playfully calls himself a narcissist but can
barely hide his discomfort with the idea of being in a movie in the first place.
Finally, there is a series of outtakes. This is a very good collection of extras for someone who
enjoyed the film. They're basically more of the same for anyone who didn't.
Derrida is a curious failure: It's obviously made by intelligent people about an
intelligent subject. And the filmmakers are aware of the difficult nature of making a visual
document out of such intellectual concepts. But the finished product doesn't work. As a viewer I
didn't feel like I had any better a grasp on the man himself or his ideas. For a concept so
dense with thought, the film ultimately is empty.